The Empire of Gore Vidal

The legacy of an American writer

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Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s. Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book Up From Conservatism and we corresponded a few times and met once. I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in the New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley, Jr. and Buckley’s wife Pat. Whether this occurred or was Vidalian paranoia, I cannot say, though given the interlocking circles of that world, anything is possible. After all, at one of Bill and Pat Buckley’s parties I met Tom Selleck, whose career break came in 1970 when he played a young stud propositioned by the elderly Mae West in the X-rated movie version of Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.

Read It

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini

Being obsessed with your place on the literary stock exchange is hardly uncommon among writers. But Vidal seems to have been particularly insecure and competitive, to judge from Jay Parini’s new Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Parini turned down his friend Gore’s request to be his official biographer; instead, he has written a combination of a biography, a catalogue raisonne, and a memoir.

As the title Empire of Self suggests, Parini’s theory of the case boils down to the view that Vidal was a narcissist:

His phone calls, in later years, often began: “What are they saying about me?” To a somewhat frightening degree, he depended on the world’s opinion. Once, in one of those memories that stands in for many others, my wife and I were sitting in Ravello when he came in with drinks. On the wall behind his desk were twenty or so framed magazine covers, with Gore’s face on each one. I asked, “What’s that about, all those covers?” He said, “When I come into this room in the morning to work, I like to be reminded who I am.”

As Donald Trump might say, at the height of his fame in the 1970s and 1980s Gore Vidal was yuge. Beginning with Burr, his historical novels were bestsellers. His contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth may have been esteemed by professors, but Gore Vidal was the Great American Novelist for Americans who seldom read novels. He could be seen frequently on TV talk shows, saying catty things about Washington politicians and Hollywood celebrities. And you might catch him on public television or European TV, posing in front of the arch of Titus in Rome and lamenting the decline and fall of the American Republic. With his foreign-sounding name and his vaguely British mid-Atlantic accent, like his bete noire Bill Buckley, Gore Vidal was a middlebrow’s idea of a highbrow.

Before his death in 2012, Vidal suffered a series of setbacks, including the death of his companion Howard Austen and, according to Parini, the ravages of alcoholism. His historical and satirical novels got worse and worse, and he penned tracts that read like student’s notes from a class with Noam Chomsky, like Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be Hated. He lost many of his friends and admirers, including yours truly, when he described as a “noble boy” Timothy McVeigh, who, when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, murdered more Americans (168) on American soil than any other terrorist before the 9/11 attacks.

Many of us, as we age, turn into a parent or a grandparent. Vidal’s hero and model all his life was his great-grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, a blind democratic senator from Oklahoma whose populist hatred of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt as warmongering tyrants was passed on to his grandson. Among the other nuggets in Parini’s biography is the revelation that young Gore and his grandfather wrote to each other of their pleasure on learning of the death of the detested FDR in April 1945. In The Golden Age, the last of the novels in the Narratives of Empire series that began with Burr, Roosevelt, scheming to embroil the U.S. in an unnecessary war with Japan, knows about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. Vidal did not simply end in tinfoil-hat territory; like his grandfather, he had dwelled in it all his life, even if the trans-Atlantic intelligentsia for a few decades mistook his isolationist Jeffersonian populism for leftism.

In the original version of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden wrote:

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

If (a big if) we can get over his view late in life of Timothy McVeigh as a misguided but noble rebel against federal tyranny, what of the works of Gore Vidal can we expect to last? The conventional wisdom, shared by his friend and biographer Jay Parini, is that he put his talent into his novels and his genius into the essays he wrote for The New York Review of Books and The Nation. According to this school, Vidal will be remembered in the future as a great essayist.

I disagree. Vidal was a brilliant and funny stylist, to be sure, and when he wrote about Hollywood, the major source of his millions, or literary friends and acquaintances like Tennessee Williams, he had no peers. But he knew next to nothing about the real world of politics and economics. His lack of first-hand experience or careful study shows in his essays on those subjects. He bluffs his way through by repeating a few cliches he inherited from his populist grandfather: the republic has become an empire, there is only one party, the property party or the banker’s party, and so on.

Far from being daring, these are the banal common places of the populist right and the faculty lounge left alike. What gave Vidal authority of a kind not possessed by, say, your retired uncle, was his mystique as a rebellious member of the elite. He posed as a member of one of America’s ruling families like Henry Adams, an intimate of Roosevelts and Kennedys who had betrayed his class to spill the beans, a Tacitus from the senatorial class recording the republic’s decline in an age of American Caesars.

According to Parini, Vidal was furious with an earlier biographer, Fred Kaplan, for undermining this pose:

Kaplan … revealed with patient genealogical research that this writer was not, as the public imagined, a blue-blood aristocrat but the son of a young man from South Dakota who had, by his athletic prowess, managed to get into West Point. Eugene Vidal had moved into the great world of Washington society by marrying the daughter of a U.S. senator. Yet this politician wasn’t a Roosevelt but a country lawyer from Webster County in Mississippi, a man who by grit and determination had found a perch in the Senate. Kaplan also revealed that Gore was not — as he often implied in conversation — a Kennedy insider but merely an onlooker.

If Vidal’s collected essays will not outlive their moment, what will? He made a lot of money by working on screenplays, including that of Ben Hur, but cinema students do not study his scripts.

The novels of his youth were quickly and deservedly forgotten. His best historical novels, published at the height of his powers, are Burr and Lincoln. But as he wrote more novels to round out his tendentious Narratives of Empire cycle, axe-grinding replaced character-drawing. What he called his “inventions,” grotesque lampoons like Myra Breckinridge and Myron and Duluth and Live from Golgotha are belabored and unfunny. Nor is any future canon of gay literature likely to include his scandalous early novel The City and the Pillar, a melodrama in which the protagonist murders the object of his unrequited love (in the revised version, he merely sodomizes him).

My guess is that if what he called “the Great Eraser” does not obliterate his posthumous reputation altogether, Gore Vidal will be remembered as a sort of American Oscar Wilde. Some of his quips may achieve immortality: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Like Wilde, Vidal may be remembered not only for his apercus but also for a handful of clever, perfect plays. The constraints imposed by writing for the stage rescued Vidal from the indulgence in prolixity and polemic that ruined many of his novels.

Two of his plays in particular have a shot at a permanent place in the repertory. The Best Man, his well-crafted 1960 play about national politics, made into a movie in 1964, still enjoys periodic revivals on Broadway. And his play Visit to a Small Planet, a masterpiece of the alien-on-earth genre of comedy, appears to have joined the canon of plays performed by generations of American high school drama students.

Gore no doubt would be disappointed by the prospect of being remembered for so little. But few writers are remembered at all. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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6 Comments on "The Empire of Gore Vidal"


DSJump
2 months 14 days ago

Everyone needs an occasional takedown, and Vidal’s no exception. When will it be Hitchens’s turn? Oh, yes, Lind already took care of him. And since middlebrows wouldn’t know a highbrow from a Canada goose, what is a highbrow’s idea of a highbrow? And how would we know if all these so-called highbrows declaring other people highbrows really are highbrows and not just middlebrows naming other middlebrows highbrows? I’m similarly troubled by the intellectual/pseudo-intellectual flap. How do we know who’s who? Perhaps both the highbrow and the intellectual are mythical beasts.

Charles Vekert
3 months 16 days ago

Wow! Great essay. It succinctly summarizes the careers of two men for the price of one:
“…like his bete noire Bill Buckley, Gore Vidal was a middlebrow’s idea of a highbrow.” That is about all you need to know about either man.

william
3 months 18 days ago

If I’d been on the cover of any magazines, I’d frame them and put them up behind my desk. Maybe not if I were on the cover of two or three hundred, like a president, but “twenty or so,” like Vidal? You bet.

jay stevens
3 months 18 days ago

Wow! I gotta give Mr. Lind’s gobbish micturition a solid D, and chide The Smarter Set for letting him soil not just himself but their rug, if you have a rug at the Smarter Set? I hope you do!
First observation: regardless of his state of health, mood or inebriation, Gore Vidal never

Wow! I gotta give Mr. Lind’s gobbish micturition a solid D, and chide The Smarter Set for letting him soil not just himself but their rug, if you have a rug at the Smarter Set? I hope you do!

First observation: regardless of his state of health, mood or inebriation, Gore Vidal never phoned it in, bro! There was another picture behind Vidal’s workdesk that Parini apparently missed —of the noble Hack. With the motto all writers should adhere to: Try Not To Be.

Vidal’s narcissistic quote “they remind me of who I am” can and should also be read in this way, Mr. Lind. Please take your essays seriously, or sit on your keyboard, don’t waste my reading time here. (memo to editors of SS)

Post in on your social media…tweet it, I’m sure you do! Was this a book review or a blog piece? A narcissistic feuilleton whose real hook for the writer was the occasion to use the lede to prance, preen and namedrop —jeesh brunch with Tom Selleck at Mum and Pups on the Sound, an intimate of lit world chatback, who’s knifing whom.

You write an epic poem about the Alamo and the gdam pinks at the NYRB tap subcommandante Marcos to review it, is there no honor among the pagan gods….but I digress, bringing up the writer’s previous literary efforts only because it is one reason why I hold him to a higher standard than most of the scribblers inside our Beltway today, who are looking more and more like true and noble hacks, lord love em and pass the Pravda.

I’d so enjoy reading a Mr. Lind take down of Gore Vidal as an overrated writer, but ONLY if he brought the same level of intensity, craft, and commitment to the subject that Gore Vidal brought to almost every one of those essays in that enormously fat book of his — considered by most serious bookchatlittypes to be the jewel in GV’s crown, so Lind’s is a decidedly dissident opine …huh? Some due diligence Lind or put a cork in it.

Stop with the ad hominem trolling; don’t do it here where I come to find a certain level of quality in the prose and performance elegance. (memo to editors of SS)

Those graphs where you unzip and let fly at the novels. I won’t even bother to unpack some of the deeper reasons GV always gave for why he put whatever talent he had as a storyteller to work laboriously retelling America’s history as a necessary and in the end Herculean labor (Parkman being long dead), which he saw as a history of empire, yes, but so what? Hasn’t that been standard infradig inside the Beltway for oh the last 25 years —and a not very successful Empire, so far, I might add, seconding another critique that the satirist in Vidal could not resist making.

True his heart was in the writing of such as Myra Breckenridge and Julian; the mystery novels he wrote as Edgar Box. Taken in another direction he could have been an American Anthony Powell, Dance to the Music of the Greatest Generation. Lethal satire, of course.

I won’t go into GV’s involvement with most of the strains of experimental European fiction, but he was one of the best read of our writers for, oh god, the last 50 years probably, and certainly his breadth of cultural engagement (plays, novels, movies, celebrities, Rome, Newman, all those friggin magazine covers) was unsurpassed by any public intellectual or bestselling author etcetera, anywhere. So, a Monster, but not a stupid or a trivial one, Mr. Lind. You lost your respect for him? Did he ever have any respect for you?

You could have looked inside yourself, and how you’ve combined artistic tendencies with a political career and thought about Vidal’s polar doppelganger, clearly a wannabe politician who ended up a pretty serious public artist….and I would have followed you, been entertained and maybe enlightened, and not be so annoyed at your performance that I not only graded you D, but felt compelled to pummel you with words back, on poor GV’s behalf, and me with wood to chop and water to haul in this screwball world.

Oh Mr. Lind, the real animus or anima or animator of your animus, was, I do suspect, a jones to add your bell to the clangor coming from inside the beltway during this current populist moment, which GV embodied avant the letters. Thus your ability to take his corpse out and whack it around like a soccer ball to serve a momentary polemic.

And this could have been a good game, had you played it with better rules of reason. But to suggest that his rather coinage and public performance of the prescient phrase the Property Party (his southern agrarian grandfather roots showing) was not now public knowledge under the more statistical but far less poetic “the one percent” —c’mon Michael. It’s one of those Spartacus moments, at least eighty percent of the country is standing there shouting “I am Gore Vidal” on this
.
Too bad the old SOB isn’t alive to witness this political season. Hunter, too! ‘Member how he always followed his introduction of the phrase “property party” by saying it had two right wings, symbolized by a donkey and an elephant. Yes there was an Oscar Wilde side.

Truth is Gore Vidal’s analysis is now lingua franca of both the right and the left. Most of the people think the property party has too much power most of the time, and even worse they’ve used that power badly, greedily, and often hugely stupidly in the face of what we seem to be facing, and bottom line: in a lot of ways immorally, unethically and illegally, with no responsibility of accountability —and that’s bad in a democratic republic. Comb back through GV’s fifty year output as an American who writes and thinks about the important things, and made that his living thus; ponder his Philip K. Dick prophecy of this trans and cis gendered PC moment; even unto his late and perhaps senescent embrace of Timothy McVeigh as an exemplar of conspiratorial victim politics, his is a bell that is ringing true and truer….

The actual voice can be explained, I believe, as what an adolescent that has gone from conversing daily with his courtly eccentric Southern Senator of a grandfather in the genteel souther town Washington was …to the rigors of Exeter…..might sound like.

Curiously, where the voice is concerned, with Buckley and Vidal, it’s one of those “separated at birth” things, isn’t it. No doubt a source of much of the spleen between them. Twins. And Vidal always having to the “the top.” His sexual candor —you can’t beat it in public discourse over the last fifty years. The godfather of Eros….I josh.

Finally your little headpat at the end that maybe GV’s plays would turn out to be his key into the hall of the immortals ….just go out kicking, Mr. Lind, when you do this sort of thing. But even here you end up adding to the unexpected luster and interest of this man (I mean you’ve caused me to re-evaluate even as I’m moved to communique to you my pique) f’sure GV has to be seen as one of the cultural giants of the Greatest Gen, up their with RR wounchasay? Toast of broadway. Christ he had sex with Jack Kerouac. Michael, c’mon!

One thing Vidal was not, was a poet. But you, Mr. Lind, are. I urge you to write us another epic about what you’ve experienced inside the Belt, at the heart of the fat gut as it were, where the the wise man and the animal lie down to couple…. take Pope as your model!

Let GV sleep with the fishes and whale songs, laughing at this moment, in peace with his cats.

Robert Sharoff
3 months 18 days ago

Lind’s knowledge of Vidal’s essays seemed confined to the later ones when he did tend to repeat himself. But to say that he had no knowledge of politics or economics is absurd — he grew up in Washington, his grandfather was a senator, his father served in FDR’s cabinet and he himself ran for office not once but twice. And no matter what he said about FDR as a young stripling trying to impress his beloved grandfather, he seems to have been on very good terms with Eleanor Roosevelt…Lind’s dismissal of the essays makes one wonder if he has actually read them. The long, considered meditations on such diverse figures as Edmund Wilson, Dawn Powell, Tennessee Williams, Henry James, Henry Adams, William Dean Howells and L. Frank Baum are the best of their kind since well, Edmund Wilson…Similarly, his essays on Lincoln, the Adams family and President Grant are model historical investigations… He also wrote one of the seminal essays on gay rights, “Pink Star and Yellow Triangle.” Lind, however, can’t see beyond the televised wisecracks.